In her essay The Ethics of Ambiguity Simone de Beauvoir proposes that we deconstruct accepted ‘universal’ ways of seeing the world – the individual ‘I’ gazing at the ‘other’ – in favour of a multi-view of interchangeable possibilities, none of which are fixed. “Instead of defining a single centre of a unified world, we could imagine other worlds – two centred, multiple, dancing worlds” (Myerson,2002:46). De Beauvoir’s ideas branch from existential philosophy which says: “… each person experiences the world through a consciousness. This consciousness is the form taken by all our experience. Consciousness feels like an inwardness with ‘me’ at its centre. This inwardness defines itself in the face of the ‘other.’ Whereas ‘I’ am a necessary being, the ‘other’ seems to be incidental” (Myerson, 2007 [2002]:20).

But to be a person is not possible until there is someone else: “…the individual is defined only by his [or her] relationship to the world and to other individuals…” (De Beauvoir, 1945:156). The existence of another individual makes each a ‘facticity’ – they exist in the world. The facticity of human beings’ existence also means that they are an object to another person – meaning they are judged by what people expect a person to be or mean. Therefore the ambiguity of people is that they are free but only when in a community, a community which restricts its members in order to live communally. 

For instance, De Beauvoir describes children as devoid of freedom because they conform to a structure set out by previous generations before they were in existence. “The child’s situation is characterized by his finding himself cast into a universe which he has not helped to establish, which has been fashioned without him, and which appears to him as an absolute to which he can only submit.” And of course, the children grow-up to become adults with these feelings about the World – “Man’s unhappiness, says Descartes, is due to his having first  been a child” (de Beauvoir, 1945). Children being subject to the choices of adults is also a criticism applied to the notion of ‘children’s literature by such academics as Jacqueline Rose. Rose argues it cannot be possible to have a literature which belongs to children, as they don’t create it themselves – it is a primer adults use to educate and entertain children. “Children’s fiction sets up a world in which the adult comes first (author, maker, giver) and the child comes after (reader, product, receiver), but where neither of them enter the space in between… Children’s fiction sets up the child as an outsider to its own process, and then aims, unashamedly, to take the child in” (Rose, 1984:2).

To prove such power relationships exist that are assumed to be innate, de Beauvoir’s methodology analyses “…metanarratives about the nature of the social condition and deconstructs totalitarian doctrines that raise up before the individual ‘a mirage’ of the universal” (Slattery and Morris, 1999:21). This idea of ‘one way’ of doing something (positivism) is refuted in the anti-authoritarian view of pedagogical philosophers Rousseau, Dewey and Freire. Specifically, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) uses critical pedagogy to argue in favour of a dialogic approach to education. Similarly, de Beauvoir talks about giving a platform non-dominant views and building knowledge through dialogue; she believed that freedom is not passive but must inspire action and lead to social consequences and value.

This pluralistic approach to education is adapted by Evelyn Arizpe in her analysis of children’s reading of picture books as a site for intercultural communication. Arizpe finds that children discern ‘generative themes’ (Freirean term) from reading picture books (text and image) about experiences of refugees. A generative theme is a cultural or political topic that concern a group of people (Arizpe, 2014:316).  “By linking the themes to ideas of culture and identity and bringing aspects of home cultures and literacies into the classroom and the discussion, students in this project made links between their own lives and those of others. By sharing their response to the texts, they created a shared set of ‘interpretive practices’ that supported their language proficiency, sharpened meaning-making from texts, deepened their enjoyment of reading and encouraged intercultural awareness” (Arizpe, 2014:306).

A Freirian approach to learning is evidenced during the Create project which I work on at North Edinburgh Arts – creative workshops for families with children under the age of five. We emphasise that the activities in the sessions are process-led rather than outcome-aimed. The individuals in the group start out with the same materials and a general idea of how to make something; through play, what is being made sometimes morphs into an entirely different thing through the interaction between adult and child, artists, volunteers and other participants. Thus, the learning is in the creation of artworks through discussion and interaction with other members of the group, much like the dialogic approach to pedagogy that Freire advocates – the hierarchy of adult to child becomes an equality.

Informed by the ambiguous, pluralistic and dialogic process of art-making on the Create project, my own illustration work sets out to allow multiple interpretations in order to allow the experiences of readers to construct the story and make it their own. This is with the context of globalised communities in mind, where there is a great vying to be included and acknowledged in the world. It aims to say that there are many ways of understanding the world – each as relevant and real as the other – that can collectively build narratives that have a fundamental structure that we can relate to, and through them, relate to each other.’


Arizpe, Evelyn ; Bagelman, Caroline ; Devlin, Alison M. ; Farrell, Maureen ; Mcadam, Julie E. (2014) Visualizing intercultural literacy: engaging critically with diversity and migration in the classroom through an image-based approach in Language and Intercultural Communication, 03 July 2014, Vol.14(3), p.304-321 [Peer Reviewed Journal] Routledge

de Beauvoir, Simone (1949) The Ethics of Ambiguity [online]
Accessed: Oct – Nov 2016

Freire, Paulo (1970 [1968]) Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Morris and Slattery (1999) Simone de Beauvoir’s Ethics and Postmodern Ambiguity:
the Assertion of Freedom in the Face of the Absurd in Educational Theory, Winter 1999, volume 49, number 1 p. 21 -36

Myerson, George (2007 [2002]) Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex: a beginner’s guide London: Hodder and Staughton



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